How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigration reform: What Obama's executive action means for California

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In California, the effects of President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration reform could be staggering. Obama said his order will protect immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents, provided they pass a criminal background check and have lived in the U.S. more than five years.


Update 6:45 p.m. Reaction on both sides in KPCC's Crawford Family Forum

There was a wide variety of reaction from those gathered to speak about President Barack Obama's immigration reform executive action in a public discussion at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum, hosted by "AirTalk" host Larry Mantle.

"I [waited] for this for many years,” said Veronica Ascencio, a Pasadena resident who's been living in the United States illegally for the past 23 years. “I will always tell my kids that if you are a good resident here, one day you will get something. No matter what.”

All three of Ascencio's children are U.S. citizens by birth.

"I guess we will still wait and fight for the rights to be treated as a human, not as an immigrant or as a Latino," Ascencio said. She added that she would apply, but would be cautious, as she doesn't want to get her hopes up just yet.

“[Obama] wants  [Republicans] to rise to the bait," said Republican strategist Jonathan Wilcox. "He wants them to impeach him or sue him or defund him, because that’s the kind of political response he thinks, and I think is likely, would make him relevant.”

Wilcox, a former speechwriter for Republican California Gov. Pete Wilson, said that he thought Obama was setting a dangerous, dishonest precedent.

“The ultimate impact I think is going to be, honestly, a continued contamination and pollution of the conversation, the way we talk to each other, work with each other in Washington and around the country," Wilcox said.

“We’ve seen how vocal immigrants have been that they haven’t been willing to just sit by and quietly take being separated from their families," said Reshma Shamasunder, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, a nonprofit organization that advocates for immigrant rights. “It’s the first step towards inclusion and ensuring that we fully integrate immigrant communities into California and stem the fear of deportation."

“There will be significant impacts on the communities where these people are living illegally, because they will now, as a result of having work permits and a Social Security number and this quasi-legal status, begin to qualify for any social services that they may qualify for as a result of being in poverty or near poverty," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C.-based organization that studies the impact of immigration on American society. "And so that’s going to be a significant impact on taxpayers and on state and local governments as they scramble to figure out how to manage this.”

Daniella Segura/KPCC with KPCC staff

Update 6:33 p.m. Some undocumented will remain in hiding

While President Barack Obama said his action will let people “come out of the shadows,” there are still some undocumented who won't.

“I think some people are going to be afraid,” said Salvador Sanabria, executive director of El Rescate, a Central American community organization that provides low-cost legal and other assistance to immigrants. 

He said it’s important for local groups to reach out to people and encourage them to apply.

"It has a lot to do with education, and also with raising consciousness that it’s OK to establish a good record in the United States, to apply later in the event of immigration reform legislation,” he said.

He and other local immigrant rights activists called the president's action “courageous” — although some said he didn’t go far enough.
"We know that as many households across our state rejoice at the freedom from fear which may soon become a reality for them, many other households mourn their exclusion from relief. We have not forgotten them,” Reshma Shamasunder, executive director of the California Immigrant Policy Center, said in a written statement.

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Update 6:12 p.m. California reacts to Obama immigration speech

Reaction came swiftly to Obama’s immigration reform speech Thursday night.

Laura Hill, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said that removing the fear of deportation from undocumented parents will help their American-born kids.

"In California and in a few other states, there are a lot of U.S. citizen children who have a parent that is unauthorized, and so allowing those parents to have relief from deportation is obviously a good thing for those families, and is probably going to lead to a stronger sense of community and more of an investment in the educational system from those families, and from those kids,” she said.
But she said the financial picture is unlikely to change for low-skilled workers — like many of the undocumented in California.
"We found in some of our earlier work that with the very low skilled immigrants, you really don’t see a lot of wage mobility in the short term after getting green cards,” she said, citing a prior study. "And we would expect this to be the same for lower skilled workers.”

One local opponent to the president's action said he fears wages will go the other way.

“All of a sudden 5 million more people will be able to enter into the job market, compete with unemployed or underemployed Americans, and also potential displace working Americans, because some of those five million would probably be willing to perform existing jobs at a lower rate of pay,” said Joe Guzzardi of Californians for Population Stabilization, a Santa Barbara-based activist group opposed to high rates of immigration. “So that is a very major concern.”

The L.A. Unified School District also released a statement.

"Every single day, employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District support the education of the students who enter our school doors, regardless of immigration status," LAUSD Superintendent Roman C. Cortines said in a press release. "I am proud to say that our District, Board and staff will continue to support students, alumni and their families — as we did during the onset of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals in 2012 — access school records to help them qualify for deportation relief under President Barack Obama’s new immigration plan."

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC with KPCC staff

Update 6:01 p.m. Obama immigration action changes deportation for those in trouble with the law

Among the immigration changes President Barack Obama announced Thursday is a significant change to a program meant to deport undocumented people when they get in trouble with law enforcement, bringing it closer to California’s model.

Under Secure Communities, agencies sent fingerprints to federal authorities upon arrest to check on legal status and had to hold people for 48 hours so immigration authorities could pick them up. That program was controversial.

California passed a law last year, the Trust Act, to limit fingerprint sharing with immigration authorities to only those convicted of serious or violent crimes.

Obama’s new program to replace Secure Communities, called the Priority Enforcement Program, will also wait until conviction for fingerprint sharing — but it doesn’t appear to limit it to people convicted of certain crimes, as California does. 

“California in some ways is becoming a model for the nation when it comes to immigration,” said Kevin Johnson, an immigration law expert and dean of the University of California, Davis School of Law. "And the Trust Act is the latest example."

He said the president may have been influenced by California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who was no fan of the prior program.

“Kamala Harris, who is an Obama insider of sorts, certainly has made her views about the Trust Act known — and I’m sure those views are known to the administration officials,” he said.

He said he doesn’t think the change will affect California, but rather that law enforcement agencies will keep following California’s rules.

Andrea Gardner/KPCC

Update 5:49 p.m. Some boo in downtown LA following Obama's immigration reform speech

The group of people outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles swelled to about 200 people to watch President Barack Obama's speech.

Some sat in the middle of the street as the president spoke. The audience was quiet until the end, with a few boos at the end of the address.

Afterward, activists immediately took to the microphone. Pablo Alvarado of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network said that the president’s order left many people out.

“We are not going to rest until everyone is free,” Alvarado said. “Are we ready for that?”
The audience applauded heartily.  

Alvarado credited the immigration rights movement with moving Obama to take executive action.

“Our community has made suffering very, very visible,” Alvarado said. “People have lost their fears, from young people to mothers, to day laborers, everyone.”

Josie Huang/KPCC

Update 5:36 p.m. LA Mayor Garcetti responds to Obama immigration reform announcement

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti responded to President Barack Obama's immigration reform announcement in a statement.

"Los Angeles will benefit from the president's common sense immigration reforms, which will strengthen and stabilize families, increase public safety and boost our economy," Garcetti said in the statement. "I continue to call on Congress to pass comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform legislation that will strengthen our economy and help families across the country."

California Attorney General Kamala Harris, also a Democrat, released her own response to Obama's speech.

"I applaud President Obama for taking steps to fix our broken immigration system," Harris said in a statement. "These executive actions prioritize deporting felons not families, and will help restore trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve."

Mike Roe/KPCC

Update 5:08 p.m. Worries about those with temporary deportation protection

As of 5 p.m., more than 100 people had shown up for a rally and viewing of the president’s speech outside the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles. 

Activists rally

Baldwin Park's Marcela Hernandez, 25, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Coalition, said she has a mix of emotions running through her. She has temporary protection from deportation under the federal program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which is for immigrants who came to the country illegally as kids.

“But the parents of DACA-eligible youth might not qualify and those are my parents,” Hernandez said.

Her mom's a cosmetologist and her dad’s a cook. She said both parents have been in the country for 15 years, and are trying to get legal residency. Both will be working and won’t be able to watch the president’s speech.  

“I’m going to have to be the one to tell them what’s going on, and sadly that they might not qualify for this,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez tweet

She said the president’s executive order is a good first step, but more needs to be done to help the rest of the immigrants who will still lack legal status. 

“We’re going to continue fighting for the community members who are left out,” Hernandez said.

Josie Huang/KPCC

Update 4:44 p.m. What Obama's immigration reform executive action means for California

In California, where 83 percent of unauthorized immigrants are estimated to have lived in the U.S. for five years or more, the effects of Obama’s executive order could be staggering.

A “fact sheet” released by the White House Thursday afternoon in advance of his national address said his order will protect immigrants who are parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents, provided they pass a criminal background check and have lived in the U.S. more than five years. He also plans to expand protection from deportation to immigrants who arrived in the United States as children before January 1, 2010, regardless of their age today — a significant move.

"California's undocumented population is generally more long term and a more established community than is true nationwide,” said Joseph Hayes, a researcher with the Public Policy Institute of California. “So we are bound to have a disproportionate number of our undocumented population eligible for these various types of relief."

Another element that could play out strongly in California is the elimination of the controversial Secure Communities enforcement program — to be replaced by another one, called the Priority Enforcement Program, which will identify and deport immigrants who are convicted criminals, rather than upon arrest, as the prior program sought to do.

California enacted a law this year, the Trust Act, limiting who local and state authorities can hold at the request of immigration officials, to only serious or violent offenders.
Other elements of Obama’s plan include a border security component, planned reforms to streamline the backlog of cases in the nation’s immigration courts, and several visa reforms. These includes rule changes that will make it easier for H-1B visa holders to change jobs, along with changes that will make it easier for their spouses to work in the U.S. 

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Update 3:59 p.m. California lawmakers react to Obama’s immigration plans

President Barack Obama waited until members of Congress were heading to the airport to fly home for Thanksgiving before outlining his plans to reform immigration. He's expected to beef up the border, focus deportation efforts on felons and offer protection for up to 5 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

Not surprisingly, reaction to the president's executive action splits along party lines among California members of Congress: Democrats applaud the president for stepping in after the House of Representatives bogged down. Republicans say the job of reform should be left to lawmakers.

Jeff Denham of Turlock is one of the few Republicans who supported a comprehensive immigration bill. He says there's an inherent flaw with taking executive action: it's "something that the next president could undermine."

Denham says the President is exceeding his authority - and his actions may even be unconstitutional. 

House Speaker John Boehner has already threatened to sue the President for exceeding his authority by implementing the Affordable Care Act. Republicans are considering a trio of options: sue the president for overstepping his authority, try to defund specific programs, or vote to shut down the government.

Democrats are saying, in effect, "bring it on."

Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, the number three Democrat in the House,  says it's been more than 500 days since the Senate passed a comprehensive bill. The President's action, he says sends this message: "while you all are waiting, getting ready to do it, at least do this so we don't let the dysfunction of a broken immigration system harm our security or harm our economy or harm those families by separating them unnecessarily any more than necessary."

Lakewood Democrat Linda Sanchez agrees, saying House Republicans should  "lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way." Since the House GOP has "done none of those things," Sanchez said, the President has "taken the first step."

Democrat Judy Chu of El Monte, who heads the Asian Pacific American Caucus, says what the President cannot do is increase the number of visas for agricultural or high tech workers. So that opens the door to further Congressional action. "There are still many, many things that are still left to be done."

Hanford Republican David Valadao, another supporter of comprehensive reform, is frustrated with both the President and House Republicans. He keeps reminding fellow lawmakers that if they want immigration reform "to be done right, we should do it ourselves."

Kitty Felde/KPCC

1:15 p.m. In California, executive action on immigration could have 'disproportionate' impact

California is home to nearly one-fourth of the immigrants who are living in the United States without legal status. So a broader temporary legalization plan, as President Obama is expected to announce this evening, will have a wide-ranging effect in the state.

Greater impact is expected in California, not only because the state is home to the largest number of unauthorized immigrants — between 2.5 and three million, depending on the estimate - but also because many in that immigrant population have been here for a long time.

Experts say that California's unauthorized immigrants tend to be more deeply rooted in local communities, as more recent arrivals have gravitated to other parts of the country seeking better job prospects and a cheaper cost of living.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, 22 percent of California's immigrants without legal status have lived in the United States for 20 years or more. More than half have lived in the U.S. for 10 years or more, and a whopping 83 percent have lived in the country over five years.

It's expected that President Obama will announce relief from deportation for law-abiding immigrants who have lived in the U.S. at least relatively long-term; some reports have cited a five or 10-year requisite to qualify. If that's the case, then it's safe to expect a large number of California immigrants lining up to apply - at least those willing to engage with a government sponsored plan.

"California's undocumented population is generally more long term and a more established community than is true nationwide,” said Joseph Hayes, a researcher with the Public Policy Institute of California. “So we are bound to have a disproportionate number of our undocumented population eligible for these various types of relief."

The president is expected to offer protection from deportation to a much wider group of people who entered the country illegally than those now covered under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which applies only to people who arrived before age 16 and are under 30.

This expanded pool of immigrants may include parents of U.S. citizen children. According to research from the University of Southern California, 13 percent of California's children are U.S. citizens who have at least one unauthorized immigrant parent.

The impact of the executive action on immigration would be biggest in Los Angeles County, where, according to Public Policy Institute of California, close to a million immigrants are without legal status - more than 900,000 - are believed to live in the county.

Large numbers of unauthorized immigrants are also living in Orange (289,000), Riverside (146,000), San Bernardino (150,000) and neighboring Southern California counties.

More details will be revealed following Obama's announcement, but his new plan will likely increase the number of unauthorized immigrants who would qualify and apply for driver’s licenses and be able to fill jobs in a wide range of industries, from agriculture to high-tech. 

The executive action is expected to include some moderate changes to assist immigrants who depend on H1B visas to live and work in the U.S. - allowing them to fill technology sector jobs where California employers are looking to hire immigrants with the right skill set.

Those who do obtain deportation relief are also expected to be eligible for work permits and this would effect the state's economy. About 9 percent of California's labor force is unauthorized, according to data from a USC report released earlier this year.

In the greater Los Angeles area, where unauthorized immigrants are estimated to number 1.1 million, the numbers are higher: Immigrants without legal status are estimated to make up 11 percent of the workforce. These workers are more heavily concentrated in certain industries. For example, statewide, they make up 38 percent of the agriculture industry, and 14 percent of the construction industry. That rises to 20 percent of the construction industry in the L.A. area.

Immigrants in general are estimated to contribute about $650 billion to California's gross domestic product, or 31 percent of the state's total GDP, according to the USC report, compiled from American Community Survey and other data. Unauthorized immigrants in particular are estimated to contribute $130 billion to the state's GDP.

But while the president's plan will make legal status available to a greater number of people, as with deferred action, is not expected to become permanent. Unlike the amnesty offered during the Reagan era in 1986, President Obama’s plan is not likely to grant green cards to unauthorized immigrants and will not provide a path to citizenship. But in California, there will probably be relief for tens of thousands of people who belong to so-called “mixed-status families” who often live with the fear of being separated by deportation.

Applicants will likely have to provide proof of residency for a specific amount of time, as applicants for deferred action have since the program kicked off in 2012, and have a clean criminal record.

Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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